In May 1927 my grandfather, Angelo Attard, set sail on the S.S. Saturnia from the tiny islands of Malta for America. As a wide-eyed youngster my earliest memories of him were Sunday afternoon dinners, when our entire family would eat while I struggled just to see the top of the table. While most of us consumed mass quantities of all things Americana—like Wonder Bread and hot dogs—I became keenly aware that my grandfather ate differently. He showed a craving for more exotic foods. It wasn’t until I was an adult that I came to realize the wonderful taste of Malta and finally understood why Grandpa always passed on the burger and fries.
The Islands of Malta reside on 122 square miles of warm, sparkling Mediterranean ocean, approximately 60 miles to the south of Sicily. While Malta prides itself on being its own country, such close proximity to the Sicilian and Italian regions has positioned Malta as a younger sibling of sorts, absorbing many of their influences. These influences have not overshadowed Malta by any means, and Malta has created a unique culture and cuisine.
As with many countries and islands around the world, the traditional cuisine was cultivated through deft use of accessible ingredients. Inland vegetation and improvised preparations of available fish and meats had formed the blueprint of the largely simplistic recipes that are still prepared in Maltese kitchens today. In her book Taste Of Malta, Claudia Caruana writes, “Although much of traditional Maltese cuisine is simple, it should not be dismissed as ‘peasant food.’” With the advance of technology, importation offered more options for the pantry. But as Malta’s cookbooks were already written, traditions often won.
Family and food is a true celebration in Malta. Most families spend seven days a week together at the table enjoying hearty meals, drinking wine and telling jokes. Dining out takes place infrequently. “I didn’t go to a restaurant till I was 12,” recalls Sebastiano Cappitta, who lived in Malta until age 22. “We never ate out, only on special occasions.” Cappitta is the executive chef and owner of the Isola and Acqua restaurants in New York City. While he serves Italian dishes in his restaurants, he savors the memories of the foods that inspired him to cook.
“One of my first memories was eating aljotta (traditional Maltese fish soup) and I nearly choked to death. I had to give myself the Heimlich,” he jokes in a distinctively Maltese accent. These days as he prepares his own revision of aljotta, Cappitta exercises damage control by filleting his fish and straining liquids before serving. Seafood is a staple of the Maltese diet, although abundance does not guarantee culinary success.
“It’s very easy (to get fish), but you don’t know what the hell you’re eating,” cracks Charles Mompalao, a Maltese-American originally from the island of Gozo. Malta is
Aljotta: Traditional Maltese Fish Soup
Recipe courtesy of Sebastiano Cappitta, Executive Chef/Owner of Isola and Acqua restaurants in New York City.
2 medium onions, chopped
4 cloves garlic, minced
4 tablespoons olive oil
6 plum tomatoes, peeled and chopped
2 sprigs mint
2 bay leaves
8 cups of water
1 3/4 lb. white fish (traditionally rockfish, substitutes include halibut, flounder and snapper)
Salt and freshly ground pepper
1 cup of cooked rice (optional)
In a medium stockpot over medium heat, add the olive oil and onions and sauté until translucent, about 10 minutes. Add garlic and sweat for 3 minutes on a low flame—do not brown the garlic. Add the tomatoes, mint, bay leaves, salt and pepper and cook over medium heat for 2 minutes. Add the fish and water and bring the mixture to a boil.
After boiling, turn heat to low and simmer for 2 minutes. Remove any excess oil at top of the pot before serving. Ladle soup into warm bowls and serve with lemon wedges as garnish. Cooked rice is optional and may be added to the soup prior to serving.
Yields 4 servings.